Coming of Age: Sexuality Pioneer Betty Dodson Turns 90

It was almost two decades ago when I stumbled across a most remarkable video. In it, a circle of women, all naked; and their group leader, a woman in her seventies, also naked. They were pre-orgasmic, and she was teaching them how to have their first orgasms. I was immediately transfixed. My years of work had brought many women who had never had an orgasm or whose orgasms have been lost to them for one reason or another. I had always wished to be able to help them acquire or restore the longed for magic. I later learned that this was Betty Dodson, and the video was a one hour distillation of the legendary women’s BodySex weekend workshops she had been leading since the early 1970’s. I proceeded to buy all her videos and pore through her books, and continued to wish for the opportunity to sit in the circle and see how she does it.

She came to rely on masturbation to sustain herself, discovering a powerful feedback loop between her art and her self pleasuring. Her orgasms energized and inspired her art and her painting turned her on. It was a perfect marriage.

Fast forward to 2018. I find that although Betty has gotten older as I have, she has met and joined forces with a young business partner, Carlin Ross, who is helping her to offer the workshops again. I have a chance to realize a bucket list dream. July of 2018 I fly to Manhattan from my home in San Francisco, to find myself sitting in the circle.

Betty Anne

Betty was born in Wichita, Kansas August 24, 1929, the second of four children in a low income farm family. Her mother, Bessie, attended school through the third grade, just long enough to learn to read and write. Betty considers her mother to be one of the wisest people she has ever known, and with her wealth of “horse sense” perhaps the greatest, most profound influence on her as a person, a woman and a sexual being. She was profoundly “fair” and in a culture of completely segregated racism and highly religious sexual conservatism and sexism, an enlightened voice of equality and sex positivity. She was normalizing and relaxed about childhood sexual curiosity, and also taught and modeled a strong minded parity with men unique for her day. Betty grew up to be fierce, telling a story of going after a family friend who attempted to sexually molest her best girlfriend when the girls were 11 years old, chasing the man breathless out of her house at knifepoint. He never tried anything like that again. Bessie patiently answered and encouraged her questions about her sexuality from early ages, which probably laid the groundwork for the remarkable maternal skill Betty has for teaching women of all ages about theirs. Indeed Betty, who never thought of herself becoming a mother, considers the BodySex workshop to be her baby.

It was increasingly dismaying and then infuriating to her that wives continued to be subject to the pleasure of their husbands, their then only legitimate male partners. There was virtually no awareness, interest or consideration of women’s pleasure. She viewed marriage as a tyranny in which both self-pleasure and partner sex relegated women to second or third class citizen status.

The other thing Bessie did right from the start, was convince Betty of her talent and brilliance as an artist. From an early age, Betty loved to draw, grabbing a crayon at every chance she got. She was in fact quite an extraordinary artist, and by the age of 18 was contributing significantly to the family income by working as a fashion illustrator, her drawings appearing regularly in newspaper and magazine ads. With dreams of becoming famous in the fashion world, Betty worked hard as she completed high school in Wichita. She especially loved drawing lingerie.

At 19, fearless, Betty moved alone to the fashion center of New York City, rented an apartment and got a job as an illustrator. Her father’s younger brother, her Uncle Howard whom she had never met, was a twice divorced, fiftyish, good-looking bachelor, who lived in the City. Like Betty’s father, he was artistic himself. Shortly after meeting, Betty proudly showed Uncle Howard her portfolio. With a cursory look he said to Betty, “You are pretty good, but if you want to make it in this town, you need to go to art school.” Betty with the grandiosity of youth was affronted, thinking she had nothing to learn. Uncle Howard offered to take her to the Museum. Betty had never been to an art museum before, went with him to both the Modern and the Met. Although unimpressed by modern art, the first painting Betty set eyes on in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was Caravaggio’s huge canvas, Mars and Venus, which portrayed the exquisite nude body of Venus showing Mars how the stars of the galaxy had been created by “expressing milk from her perfectly formed breasts that came out in dazzling little stars. The combination of beauty and sensuality knocked me out. I knew I wanted to paint like that.” She took Uncle Howard’s advice and proceeded to go to art school. And although he was opinionated and had old world gender role attitudes, he was kind and generous, helping Betty get settled in New York where she proceeded to work her way through the prestigious Art Academy.

Art in The City

Betty was and still is outraged and enraged by the seemingly impenetrable sexism of the art world. The little I knew of it was from the story of Georgia O’Keefe who relied on her husband Alfred Stieglitz to open doors and facilitate her gaining her earlier opportunities to exhibit her work, even though she was “pretty good for a woman.” That of course complicated for O’Keefe, what would become an increasingly difficult dependency. Betty still snarls about it. As Betty moved into her thirties, in New York of the 1950’s she had decisions to make about her own life. It was expected that women marry and have families, and although she knew fairly young that she was not cut out for motherhood, her “ticking clock” drew her to marriage as she approached 40. She married a handsome, kind, seemingly perfect Jewish art benefactor named Fred with whom she had a relatively harmonious, bland and sexless marriage. The sexless part being unbearable to a woman as sexual as Betty, she came to rely on masturbation to sustain herself, discovering a powerful feedback loop between her art and her self pleasuring. Her orgasms energized and inspired her art and her painting turned her on. It was a perfect marriage. Often she would come home from the studio to her more mundane, literal marriage, spent, her husband not knowing she had been wildly masturbating all day long. This placid arrangement lasted a decade, with Betty’s art becoming increasingly erotic during that time until one day Fred came home and racked with shame and remorse, confessed to Betty that he had fallen in love with his secretary and wanted a divorce. And although Betty now claims she effectively played the role of heartbroken, betrayed spouse, she was secretly hugely relieved to be “off the hook”and free of the stifling prison of a monogamy bereft of partner sex. This happened in a world slowly awakening to women’s and sexual liberation.

Liberating Masturbation

The early 1970’s brought women’s “CR” consciousness raising groups, where women gathered at regular intervals to talk about their lives and relationships, feelings and ideas, with other women. Betty’s art, sexuality and political sensibilities seemed to be three harmonic branches of the same tree, growing, expanding, flowering and then beginning to bear extraordinary fruit. Perchance she discovered “sex parties,” a kind of latter day orgy, where participants were free to explore and experiment with sex free of serious, sacred or relationship trappings, but rather as fun and play. Permission for such an approach to sex which since time immemorial had been the accepted purview of men, was novel, refreshing and freeing for women. And Betty began first to attend and then host such parties, which grew in notoriety and size as time went on. They were drug and alcohol free, sex being the social lubricant, (although there were plenty of cigarettes in those days, and Betty admittedly still loves to smoke.) Her repertoire and philosophy about sex continued to evolve and she continued to paint about them. Soon thereafter, she met Grant, the “great love/hate of her life.” An intellectual and accomplished university professor, he was a wonderful play mate for partner sex, and a great proponent of her work. The hate was because he was “depressive, unpredictably angry, moody and unbearably possessive.” Their involvement as non-exclusive sexual friends however, spanned 40 years until he died. It was Grant who encouraged her to write.

Betty became increasingly politicized by the burgeoning women’s movement of the 1970’s. Her unique and special interest was around women’s sexuality. It was increasingly dismaying and then infuriating to her that wives continued to be subject to the pleasure of their husbands, their then only legitimate male partners. There was virtually no awareness, interest or consideration of women’s pleasure. She viewed marriage as a tyranny in which both self pleasure and partner sex relegated women to second or third class citizen status. Raising consciousness about women’s pleasure, and introducing women to self pleasure became Betty’s passion, mission and great contribution.

In 1974 Betty was invited to write an article about women and masturbation for the then foremost national feminist magazine, Ms. The editors, finding it perhaps just a bit too hot, the article was slashed to a perfunctory three pages, with the parenthetical caveat that interested readers could order the full unabridged 18 page monograph by sending a check for three dollars. Within four weeks, Betty’s mailbox had been deluged with literally thousands of three dollar checks. Incredulous, she proudly told her mother she had collected close to $10,000 in three dollar checks, no small sum in 1974 currency. Betty busily Xeroxed and stuffed envelopes over the next several months, and then set to work on her first book. Clearly there was an appetite and a demand for a new female sexuality. Speaking engagements soon followed.

From there, her increasingly bold openness about masturbation and a new female sexuality, and Betty’s finding a niche in the women’s CR groups, organically sprouted the BodySex workshops. She named them BodySex as they were about something free of morality, roles, heaviness, sacredness or even love. They were about freedom, organicity, nature, self care, pleasure and joy. The workshops were about restoring our nature. And they evolved organically like a piece of art. “I never planned them, just like I never plan a painting. Just as the painting seems to appear spontaneously on the canvas, so the workshops “shaped themselves. I didn’t know what I was doing,” Betty declares, “I just made it up as I went along.” And somehow over the decades, hundreds, and then thousands of women. came.

The Rest is History

Decades later Betty’s work is formational and transformational in what is now the world of sexology and sex therapy, research and practice. Betty earned a doctorate and in addition to the BodySex workshops has taught and presented around the globe. Over the years I have heard her speak and teach dozens of times in different conferences and venues. I was thrilled that she granted me an interview and welcomed my writing this article/

Betty and her work seemed never to get old even as the world has changed around her. Her books now number in dozens and have been translated into many languages. Her legacy grows. It was a great thing when in 2004 she met up with Carlin, a thirty-something attorney. And the timing was perfect. The age of electronics was upon us and Betty was mystified and cowed by it. Although savvy to its inevitability, she was neither inclined nor interested in pursuing it herself. Upon meeting Carlin ,she sensed immediately a quick and brilliant mind, and an innate generational technological ability. It was a perfect match. Carlin also proved to have the unique quality of being willing and gracefully able to operate behind the scenes as not the main event herself, but the invisible facilitator of the main event presenting flawlessly. It is a rare absence of egotism and narcissism, that portends an amazing self confidence and humility. An extraordinary blend. Carlin also has the patience, compassion and presence to graciously and respectfully fill in for Betty’s failing ears and memory. “I am deaf!” Betty declares “although I can read lips and bodies.” Carlin seamlessly knows when she needs to loudly repeat something that Betty has missed. Standing in for Betty’s sometimes spotty memory, she can say with humor and gentleness, “Yes Betty, we just did that.” They are a wonderful team. Carlin is an unsung hero, that has enabled us to have more of Betty when she seemed to be winding down. She is also a great archiver, documentarian and organizer, all a great complement to Betty’s artistic temperament, as well as a creative sexual being in her own right. We are fortunate to have her. Fifty years later, I arrive at the door of the same downtown Manhattan apartment where the first BodySex workshop was born.

2018, The BodySex Workshop

It is a steamy July afternoon in New York City where Betty still lives in the classic rent controlled apartment she lived in with her husband Fred. It is beautiful, and the sign downstairs says “all guests must announce themselves.” The young man at the desk takes one look at me and says “Betty Dodson?” and points to the elevator. Clearly he has seen hundreds of women trooping in and out to see Betty, even in the young years he may be employed there. I am greeted at the door by Carlin who is completely naked. It seems utterly natural to take off one’s shoes and leave them in the entryway, and to take off one’s clothes and hang them on the hooks.

I am not the first to arrive and the other women, who have already begun to situate themselves in a circle on the floor, are completely naked. The room is beautiful and light, clearly the home of an artist entranced by Renaissance art and the human form. Huge drawings and paintings grace the walls, most prominent of all being an exquisite nude of Bessie, Betty’s beloved mother and mentor. There are also beautiful sculptures, warm textiles and candles, and many artistic representations of vulvas. Shelves of books cover several walls, gentle music plays, and there is both a quiet, tense excitement, and a remarkable sense of comfort, ease and safety. It is rather like the mysterious blend of arousal and relaxation required by sex. (Betty adamantly declares however, that “orgasm is NOT about relaxing but about GOING FOR IT” I guess I am just amazed by how comfortable I already feel, if perhaps somewhat pinching myself. Is this is actually happening?

Where often coming from San Francisco, I am the farthest traveler in a group, in this group women have journeyed from all over the globe: two from Australia, one from India, one from Chile, one from Berlin and two from China, with a smattering of new Yorkers and one other West Coaster besides me. We are the world. And we are every shape and size. There are women who are at least twice my weight; the range of pronouns and orientations are represented. The youngest is 27 and the oldest (besides Betty) is me at 63. I am vaguely conscious of my age, but mostly to be moved and somewhat emotional about the crop of young women who are up and coming in this historical time.

We begin with an un-hurried round of introductions, each woman saying something about herself and what brings her. People are there for a range of reasons, to restore an orgasm lost or damaged by surgery or trauma; to learn how to have orgasms for the first time, and to learn how to do what Betty does and help other women. We all have a story, and each is captivating. I feel moved and privileged to share and be let in to this deeply personal and usually private realm. By the time we complete the circle, 14 women plus Betty and Carlin, most of whom just met for the first time, are very much a group.

Show and Tell

The main event of Day One is “Show and Tell.” This is where each participant has a chance to sit next to Betty who with her 50 year old hand mirror, gives each person a guided tour of her own vulva, and the whole group comes along. Betty names the various structures: “This is your clitoris, these are the outer and inner lips, the “pee hole” or urethra, and the vagina. We are all amazed by how different we all are, that vulvas are as varied as faces. The colors, the shapes, sizes of the various structures. And because of our different ethnicities and ages we are that much more diverse. Some have pubic hair and some are waxed or shaven. Some have thick or textured pubic hair that resembles the hair on their heads, on others it is thinning or greying. Some have been injured giving birth, or experienced sexual assault and are scarred by that. And each has a story, often including shame, the shame that comes of never having been told “there is nothing wrong with you.” It is remarkable how shame dissolves by bringing the vulvas and their stories out of hiding. Carlin takes a photo for each woman of her vulva.

Come Together Right Now…

The pinnacle of the weekend is what Betty has named the “Erotic Recess.” When we arrive on Day Two, at each woman’s spot on the floor, is a towel with a one pound stainless steel “barbell” dildo, a bottle of lube, and a vibrator. After doing a breathing exercise and some warm-up movements, Betty has us all lie down with our feet toward the center of the circle. It is a large and airy room , there is plenty of space. She instructs us to lube up and insert the barbell, biting down on it. Orgasm is a uniquely healthful activity, Betty teaches because it combines 4 essential human functions: breath, muscle strength, movement and imagination. Betty considers the integration of these four powerful elements as being the secret to longevity and health. She prioritizes regular orgasm, with or without a partner with good nutrition, sleep and going to the gym. At 89 she still has a regular masturbation routine, and she recommends it to all of us lifelong. She emphasizes, “you don’t need to have a partner.” Betty gave us simple instructions for each element, attention to breath, thrusting movements that curl toward ones own body rather than arch away, using muscle to grip solidly to the barbell, and let fantasy fly. Then she, as she has in this room and many others around the world over the past 50 years, she invites us all to go about it. For the next timeless hour or so, the room is a symphony of ecstatic sound as 14 women plus Betty and Carlin, generate multiple, multiple orgasms. Betty believes that women’s orgasmic energy will rise and heal the planet. I was amazed to be so un-distracted and comfortable in a way I had never imagined, well not for me anyway.

Once we all began to wind down Carlin brought out bowls of huge, ripe strawberries, chunks of wonderful cheese; and pitchers of ice water with lemon slices. A relaxed glow settled over the room.

Six Pairs of Hands

After a break, came one more activity. The group massage. This was where Carlin split us up into two groups of seven, and we each had a turn at being massaged front and back, by six pairs of hands at once. Not erotic, it was calming, and a delicious culmination of our extraordinary day. What remained was closure, where we had a chance to share our gratitude, and any other insights or discoveries we had gained. Many of the women wanted to g out to dinner or hit the new York clubs, but I was ready to settle in and reflect on this remarkable weekend. I had become part of the 50 year legacy.

On August 24th Betty turns 90 years old, still going strong and continuing to make her indelible mark on the world. Countless women and men have a happier life because of her work. And she also teaches that the best way to promote sexual health is to be like her mother Bessie: open, interested and encouraging of children’s sexual curiosity and impulse to masturbate. Teach them to be safe and informed, and let them explore.

Thank you Betty for your life’s work and legacy. In New York you are a local treasure and in the world you are one of a kind! Happy Birthday and many more! And as I know you would say to all of us, “Happy Orgasms!”

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